Titled “Self Portrait,” this 1989 oil on canvas, 17” x 13” piece by Martha Mayer Erlebacher was a gift to Woodmere Art Museum from Frances and Robert Kohler in 2004.

Titled “Self Portrait,” this 1989 oil on canvas, 17” x 13” piece by Martha Mayer Erlebacher was a gift to Woodmere Art Museum from Frances and Robert Kohler in 2004.

by Sally Cohen

Spanning over four decades of her career, Woodmere Art Museum’s new exhibition “Just In: Martha Mayer Erlebacher” (Jan. 11-March 2) pays tribute to the life and work of one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished artists.

Erlebacher (1937-2013) is widely considered one of the most important American Figurative Realists of her time; “Just In” focuses on the artist’s symbolic use of the nude figure as a metaphor for her changing views on the state of humanity. “Apollo” (1971), the earliest painting in the exhibition, represents a modern world that is youthful and optimistic in its order and unblemished beauty; “In a Garden” (1976) and “The Death of Orpheus” (1997) convey darker sentiments about a contemporary state of society in decline.

In addition to a number of works by Erlebacher in Woodmere’s permanent collection, the exhibition will also showcase a selection of paintings and drawings from the recent gift generously donated to the museum by the artist’s sons, Adrian and Jonah.

To demonstrate the process of Erlebacher’s visual thinking, the exhibition also pairs several monumental paintings with preparatory drawings and oil sketches. Erlebacher often drew from the live model and prepared sketches and drawings in order to establish broad relationships between formal elements and symbolic characters.

Erlebacher herself had wanted Woodmere, with its focus on telling the stories of Philadelphia’s artists, to be the museum that preserves her legacy and that of her husband, sculptor Walter Erlebacher (1933-1991). According to William R. Valerio, the Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of Woodmere: “We are honored and most grateful to Erlebacher, and to her sons and their families, for recognizing the significance of Woodmere’s mission and for making many generous gifts of art.”

According to University of California art historian, Danielle Peltakian, “In the manner of great American Realist Thomas Eakins, Erlebacher demonstrates her mastery of the human form in her powerful, large-scale paintings of nudes and draped figures. While grounding much of her life’s work in the tradition of the great Italian and French masters of the 18th and 19th centuries, she incorporated her own knowledge of modernism by questioning the origin and value of human life in her paintings.

“Believing that ‘the human experience is the proper subject matter of art,’ Erlebacher painted timeless nudes that offer insight into the emotions and complexities inherent in all human beings. Though a teacher of the stern Realist style, she incorporated a masterful technique that never fails to subtly allude to the duality of the unadorned nude, which is at once both sensual and noble.”

Woodmere Art Museum is located at 9201 Germantown Avenue. Admission to special exhibitions is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, and free for students, children and museum members; exhibitions in the Founder’s Gallery and Helen Millard Children’s Gallery are free. Woodmere offers free admission on Sundays.

Housed in a 19th-century stone Victorian mansion on six acres in Chestnut Hill, Woodmere first opened its doors to the public in 1940. The building, grounds and the nucleus of the Permanent Collection are the benefactions of Charles Knox Smith (1845 – 1916), who wished “to awaken the spirit of, the appreciation of, and the knowledge of art … in the City of Philadelphia and surrounding territory.” Today, the Permanent Collection consists of more than 3,000 works of art, celebrating the art and artists of Philadelphia.

Woodmere’s core collection includes important paintings by renowned artists such as Edward Redfield, Daniel Garber, Walter E. Schofield, Benjamin West, Frederic Edwin Church, Violet Oakley, Arthur B. Carles and many more. Woodmere’s nine galleries and salons, including a grand rotunda and a uniquely designated Helen Millard Children’s Gallery, provide space for exhibitions and programs that serve the entire family. Woodmere also offers a year-round roster of classes providing art training to children and adults.

For more information, visit woodmereartmuseum.org or call 215-247-0476.